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The BG News
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November 30, 2023

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Cities crack down on student renters

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – When three months passed and no one claimed the boxer shorts lying in front of a vacant house on her street, homeowner Hanni Sherman washed them and donated them to a charity. When raw sewage was spilling on the sidewalk in front of a student-occupied house and no one called the city, Dick Sherman reported it.

For the most part, the retired couple has learned to cope with the occasional offenses that have come as more and more college students have moved into their neighborhood on Matoaka Court in Williamsburg. Red plastic cups strewn on a lawn; one too many cars parked in driveways, blocking the sidewalk; a stop sign missing after a party.

But as the incidents and the students moving in become more frequent, the Shermans and others have grown increasingly uneasy about what will happen as more of the retirees and widows on their street move out or die.

Brian Cannon, a former leader of the W’M student body, says his classmates are also concerned about what they see going on in Williamsburg: New rental inspection laws designed, in part, to discourage landlords; increased enforcement of existing laws that have led to the eviction of students living more than three to a house; a proposal for an off-campus student-housing complex that was shot down by angry neighbors; a city that wants to take students’ money but won’t let them vote.

Residents like the Shermans and students like Cannon see a trend toward a Williamsburg they wouldn’t want to live in. Both are part of the most heightened friction between the city and college in more than three decades. At the source of much of their unease is the basic question of where people will live.

More than a third of W’M students live off campus. Some choose to live in apartments, but students say the dearth of options around the college, the limited number of apartments and the appeal of living together in a house lead them into single-family neighborhoods. In the past five years, homeowners on some streets near the college say the number of students has increased, causing a growing number of residents to fear the loss of their neighborhood.

“Williamsburg downtown, in terms of residential living, is eroding. There’s no downtown shopping for residents, we’re losing the residential base to bed and breakfasts, to homes going to office-types of uses, to homes being used for student housing,” said Doug Pons, who bought the house next door to his childhood home, near the W’M campus. “So what’s next? Is it my street?”

In 2000, about a third of the single-family homes in the city were occupied by renters and more than half of all housing in Williamsburg was occupied by renters. In nearby James City county, only 22 percent of the housing was rental, and in York County, 24 percent.

As the number of students looking for housing off campus has increased, so have complaints from homeowners, many of whom are retired. They cite unkempt lawns, noise and not enough parking on their street because too many students are living in one house.

“We like to sleep with our windows open, they come and go at 1, 2, 3 o’clock in the morning, slamming doors. You might get a group trained one year, but then the next year you’ve got to train another group,” said Jim McCord, 66, who is chairman of the W’M history department and lives on Richmond Road.

“You hate to be a grouch, but you’re forced into it by the fact that we want to live in a single-family neighborhood.”

The city is using several tools to make sure neighborhoods don’t become unlivable for owner-occupants, but it is challenged by the economics of a college town.

City Manager Jack Tuttle said, “In most situations, if you have a neighborhood that’s in a good location, there is built-in encouragement for people to keep up their properties in order to maintain their property values.”

“The problem is, in certain locations, it is possible to buy a house, rent it out and not do a very good job of maintaining it and still get rental income,” he said.

“The economics of a college town makes it possible for landlords to do minimal maintenance on their properties and still make a profit, because students are willing to accept poor conditions and high rents in exchange for the location.”

To combat this phenomenon, city officials started pursuing code violations on their own two years ago instead of just responding to complaints. Last year, they implemented a rental inspection program designed to address safety problems, which Tuttle said he hopes will also make rentals less profitable for landlords. The program targeted areas close to W’M and Colonial Williamsburg, which make up 27 percent of the city housing units, but 50 percent of citizens’ complaints about property maintenance since 1993.

The city has an ordinance preventing three unrelated people from living in a house, no matter the size or number of bedrooms. Some city residents complain it isn’t aggressively enforced, and some students say their landlords have told them they don’t have to open the door for city inspectors. Codes compliance officials say it is difficult to tell how many people are actually living in a house and there have only been three cases where people have had to move out over the past 10 months.

Tuttle also tried to relieve some of the pressure on residential neighborhoods by working with a developer last year to propose a privately developed and managed apartment complex aimed at attracting college students, on Richmond Road near Williamsburg Shopping Center. But the city’s effort “ran into a buzz saw,” Tuttle said. Residents from as far as several blocks away fought to keep it out, fearing it would just bring more students, not just shift them from homes to apartments. The City Council hired a consultant to help determine what comes next.

The city’s programs, the comments of vocal, frustrated homeowners, and the continued shift of businesses in Merchant Square to tourist-oriented shops have made some students feel the city doesn’t want them.

When they tried to fight back by getting some of their own on the City Council this year, they found the city’s registrar unwilling to add but a few students to the voter rolls because they weren’t considered residents under the law.

“It just seems like strike one, two and three,” said Cannon, a W’M senior and past-president of the Student Assembly.

He and other students have worked with city officials this year to improve the relationship. Students also held a workshop for people planning to live off-campus, which the college hopes to make an annual event.

“It will take several years for us to get around to establishing student rights and responsibilities in the community,” Cannon said. “I think that that dialogue’s emerging.”

City officials and residents like the Shermans say this is a critical point in several still-desirable neighborhoods, as elderly homeowners die or move out. Reclaiming houses lost to landlords for families is a difficult, expensive and long process.

“There are several older widows on our block,” Hanni Sherman, 73, said. “We very much worry that they will eventually have students in there.”

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